Incorporating teamwork in education

This is Carol‘s article that appeared in Thanh Nien News and Vietweek on 4/5/2012.

By Carol Witney

As organisations are becoming more reliant on teamwork processes to meet their needs in a global market, and team experiences are considered by employers as a valuable graduate attribute, it seems natural then those educators would respond to this challenge by implementing teamwork as a key component in many university courses.

Numerous studies have highlighted the advantages of using teamwork in a university setting which include providing students with opportunities to acquire and develop necessary skills for future employment – leadership, negotiation, time management, team problem solving, interpersonal communication and more often than not,  conflict resolution. Teamwork has also been shown to improve the academic performance of many students by increasing student motivation, promoting deeper learning, and changing attitudes towards learning. So, the aim of teamwork in university is to produce better written reports, proposals, research papers and oral presentations by combining the knowledge, ideas and talents of team members.

So, if teamwork has so many major advantages, why is it then that the very mention of teamwork to students elicits a variety of responses ranging  from general reluctance to sheer horror at the thought,  followed by questions such as , ‘do we have to?’ ‘can’t we just do our own project” ‘why do I have to work with them?’

Well, working in teams causes real problems, too. For example, some students may not be familiar with this way of working, especially first semester students and may feel confused about what they are being asked to do – either because of their inexperience or lack of clear guidelines and assessment criteria. Others find it time consuming, or prefer to work by themselves. An aspect that concerns students and lecturers equally is what researchers call ‘opportunist’ or ‘parasitic’ behaviour. This has a negative impact on team members, especially when all students receive the same marks for the assignment.  Finally, in our experience, most students are often not prepared for team working, and they need both training and practice.

The whole process then can be managed better if academic support staff, lecturers and students understand their roles in the process and have a clear idea of where they are going. Students definitely do need help to prepare themselves for this process, and in the first instance, higher education institutes can start by providing workshops through their Learning Skills Unit on team building, team presentations and team writing and opportunities to reflect on these activities. This would also alleviate pressure on lecturers who sometimes comment that providing this kind of in-class training would reduce time spent on the core subject matter.

Best practice in education dictates that the activity needs to be well designed; students need to be guided through the process and the activity needs to be assessed properly-both the process and the product (although it is much harder to effectively assess the process).  Activities can quickly become out-dated, irrelevant and culturally unacceptable. It’s also important for educators to clarify whether the group activity is genuine or whether it’s a way to reduce the number of assignments needing to be assessed.

We recommend that educators provide a clear description in writing of exactly what needs to be achieved during the activity, how students should work, and exactly how they are going to be assessed. The more detailed and accurate the guidelines, the better – it’s not spoon feeding, and assessment criteria should never be a mystery to students.

As students, we also need to take responsibility for our role – there are hundreds of websites and books on teamwork that can give you good advice, but here are a few basic tips:

Try and view team work as a positive learning experience! Ask for clear guidelines and assessment criteria. Sit down with your new team and get to know them- don’t underestimate the impact that the quality of your relationships with other team members has on your overall success as a group. This is where you talk about your interests, goals, expectations, and where you can find out about individual strengths and weaknesses.  Decide whether you need a leader – some groups work well without a designated leader. If you opt for a leader, make sure the person has good listening skills and is not going to steer the group in the direction he/she wants. Effective leaders manage the process. And, don’t forget to create a contact list for group members.

Analyse the task and make sure that you all have a common understanding of the aims and the scope of the project, and how you are going to collaborate. Be innovative – use the technology at your disposal – many students at RMIT are using Google Docs because it allows the team to collaborate independently from different locations while being able to view in real time their team mates contributions.

Finally, try and minimise conflict by setting out strategies at the very beginning of the project and discuss how you might deal with domineering individuals or those who don’t do their share of the work. If you do have conflict, remember to separate the person from the problem – critique ideas, not each other’s personalities. Be understanding and patient with each other.

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